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    Monday, July 22, 2024

    Apartments slated for site of New London church collapse

    Excavators demolish the structure and clear rubble Monday, January 29, 2024 at the First Congregational Church in New London following the January 25, 2024 collapse. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    An excavator demolishes one of the towers left standing Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, after the collapse Jan. 25, 2024 of First Congregational Church on State Street in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    New London ― A non-profit group specializing in creating affordable housing in the region is poised to purchase the former First Congregational Church property in New London, the site of a massive January steeple collapse that led to the demolition of the building.

    The Eastern Connecticut Housing Opportunities (ECHO) group will pay $125,000 to Engaging Heaven Ministries for the 66 Union St. property, with the sale expected to be finalized on Tuesday, ECHO President Julie Savin said on Wednesday.

    On Jan. 25, the 173-year-old church’s iconic steeple collapsed, severely damaging the structure and prompting the emergency demolition of most of the building. Savin, whose leased offices at 165 State St. are just two doors down from the former church, recalled the unfolding chaos that day.

    “We were one of the first ones at that scene,” she said.

    Nobody was injured in the church steeple collapse, the cause of which has not been determined.

    Savin said her group entered a purchase and sale agreement in April with the Florida-based Engaging Heaven Ministries, which bought the church from the First Congregational Church in 2015 for $250,000 under a monthly mortgage agreement.

    Savin said her group “definitely” plans to build apartments at the site, likely supplemented with commercial space ― and possibly move its offices there ― though those plans are still in the conceptual phase. There would be both market rate and affordable units.

    “We’ve always wanted to establish a permanent presence in downtown New London,” she said. “After (the collapse), we had casual conversations about securing the lot. It’s been a dream of ours to provide new housing opportunities in that area.”

    Savin said her group is in the process of applying for state funding for the housing project. But before any construction can begin, the mountain of granite blocks, wood and other debris must be cleared from the property.

    A forbearance agreement set to be presented Monday to the City Council states that the rubble must be removed by Nov. 1, though Savin has a more ambitious clean-up timeline.

    “We’ve gotten bids for rock removal, as well as for the removal of the remaining annex building,” she said. “My hope is to very quickly get to work on that process and avoid any long-term street disruption. Getting it all removed by the end of the summer would be ideal.”

    Savin said she expects to incorporate some of the church granite into the new construction.

    “What we put up isn’t going to be a Gothic-style building, but we want what we create to be respectful of the old building and its architecture,” she said.

    The sale is contingent on the cooperation of both the city and First Congregational Church members, who were still using the church as a worship space and community meals at the time of the collapse.

    The city in February, impatient with the pace of Engaging Heaven representatives in paying their share of emergency demolition costs, placed a $245,000 lien on the property.

    Mayor Michael Passero said Wednesday a proposed forbearance agreement gives the new owners two years to pay off the lien.

    “We’re fully supportive of ECHO and its plans, and it wouldn’t have been possible for them to buy that property if they had to cover that lien right away,” Passero said. “We know we’re going to get paid and we understand the value of what they plan to put on that property to the city.”

    Passero, whose City Hall office overlooks the church rubble pile, praised the timing of the imminent sale.

    “If this collapse happened at a different time in the city, not in this era of renewed development opportunities, that property could have been left sitting for years,” he said.

    Attempts to reach Engaging Heaven officials on Wednesday at the group’s Florida headquarters were unsuccessful.

    Cathy Zall, co-pastor of the First Congregational Church, said her congregation is finalizing a similar forbearance agreement that would give ECHO two years to pay the remaining $250,000 in mortgage payments owed on the property.

    When the lien, sale and mortgage costs are totaled, ECHO will pay approximately $620,000 for the church property over a period of two years.

    Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, said the property will pass into deserving hands.

    “There’s so much good about this,” she said. “ECHO is sensitive to what was there before, as well as to the need for more affordable housing. This feels like a good use of the property.”

    ECHO specializes in rehabilitating single-family homes in the area and offering them to first-time home buyers. They also oversee 199 affordable rental properties in Norwich, New London and Groton.

    The group earlier this year celebrated the opening of 28 affordable housing units at the Bayonet Apartments in New London with another 36 more expected to open soon.

    Editor’s note: This version corrects the mix of residential uses in the planned building.

    j.penney@theday.com

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